When Advent Hurts: Waiting for the Light
Running along the river, we drew in lung-numbing air and breathed out frustration. "When I heard about the Paris attacks," she huffed between strides, "I just sat on my bed and cried."
The familiar weight settles in my chest again. We talk about the drowned Syrian boy, the attack in Beirut, the refugee crisis, the fear permeating our neighborhoods. I remember how last year, around this time, I was equally heartbroken for the world. These and other crises threaten to push me further downward: friends' struggles with infertility, divorces, broken families, dead children. Advent promises to bring light after the days get darker, but it's only November 15th. The days aren't even as dark as they'll get yet.
There is a whole host of things no one tells you about becoming a parent. Veteran parents watch with secretive smiles while others start the season of diapers and deep, overwhelming love; they know there are some things you can't be told, you can only discover.
One of those things they don't tell you is how much parenthood aches.
Your heart expands to include an overwhelming love for your baby; that's to be expected. What I didn't sign on for is how many more infants and children and families my faltering heart would suddenly want to accommodate.
Motherhood is beautiful and fulfilling and oh so very weighty.
Last year around this time, I was still entertaining visions of a perfect first Christmas season for Charlie. What could be more magical than the first Christmas with your first child?
Instead, I experienced for the first time that unbearable weight of motherhood, that grief for strangers' children. When I had envisioned childhood magic and twinkling lights, instead I was struggling under the weight of world events. I felt cheated. Jesus was in the manger and the story was moving on to the Wise Men, but I wasn't ready. Where was the peace on earth? The goodwill toward men? Christmas had come, but injustice still reigned and the darkness felt tangible.
then in despair I bowed my head.
there is no peace on earth, I said
for hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There's a promise written into creation that I cling to. The days grow shorter, colder, and darker—but the light always comes. It's a cyclical symbol of a bigger story. Our world grows colder, darker—but the light is coming.
There was a time when Advent meant nothing more to me than opening cardboard cut-outs to reveal the number of days between me and gifts. I subconsciously linked Advent with pleasure, comfort, and a cleaned-up baby Jesus. The thing is, it's a lie that Christmas is all smiles and magic and warm fuzzies. It's a prettily-packaged lie with free gift-wrapping (and just reduced to $79.99!) that we want so desperately to believe.
But Advent is painful. Jesus' entrance into this world came at a time of war and xenophobia and genocide. Sound familiar? Only shortly after he was born, Herod acted on the lie that people who are different are to be feared, so he killed every Jewish boy under two. The infant Christ turned refugee while a xenophobic king ripped babies from their mothers' wombs. The first Christmas didn't happen in a world somehow safer or cleaner or kinder than the one we live in now.
That's why Jesus came. That's why Advent hurts. The Christ-child came into a world as dark, cold, and weary as ours today. All the twinkling lights in the world can't pierce that darkness. It takes a light stronger than the coming summer sun to warm human hearts.
This Advent, I'm embracing the hurt. I'm looking the pained, suffering world in the eye and saying, "I love you." Whether it's with my time, money, empathy, or voice, I'm doing my best to turn my pain into action. I'm trying to simplify the commercialism and the rush so I can quiet myself and listen and act.
I've started my Advent reading early this year with a soul-quenching book. Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent features essays and poems by greats from Aquinas to Sylvia Plath. The readings start on November 24th and go through Epiphany in January. I'm choosing to quiet my heart with these readings, fully experiencing the pain and joy of Advent, not shying away from the reality of this dark world.
Instead of trying to manufacture happiness this Advent season, I'm going to listen to the pain, experience the quiet joy, and turn my grief into action.
then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor does He sleep.
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, goodwill to men."